Startup founders and small business owners are usually experts in their field and passionate about their work. Ironically, that’s why most fail. They don’t know a thing about running a business and, for the most part, don’t care to learn. Sooner or later, that trips them up. Sadly, the same goes for far too many seasoned CEOs.

If entrepreneurs and executives would simply admit they don’t know what they don’t know , their chances of succeeding over the long haul would rise significantly. These 15 tips are guaranteed to help keep any company out of hot water. Some are straightforward. Others are counterintuitive. All are true. And some day they just may save your butt.

Always make sure there’s enough cash in the bank. Period. More companies run out of cash than any other failure mode. The rule is, if you wait until it’s a problem, it’s probably too late. And don’t think you can delegate it, either. It’s a CEO’s job.

You can’t fire bad employees fast enough. You just can’t. Just make sure you know they’re the problem and not you (see next tip).

The problem is probably you. As a young manager I got stuck in a week of Juran quality training where I learned the most important lesson of my career: 90% of work problems are management problems. When there’s trouble, first look in the mirror.

Take care of your stars. That goes for every company big and small. The cost of losing a star employee is enormous, yet business leaders rarely take the time to ensure their top performers are properly motivated, challenged, and compensated.

Your people are not your kids, your personal assistant or your shrink. If you use and abuse them that way, you will come to regret it. Capiche?

Learn to say yes and no a lot. The two most important words in business are “yes” and “no.” Be decisive; the quicker you make informed decisions the better. And it’s often more important to get to “no” as “yes.”

Listen to your customers. It boggles my mind how little most business leaders value their customers. Not only is customer feedback among the most critical information you will ever learn, repeat business is the easiest business to get.

Learn two words: meritocracy and nepotism. The first is how you run an organization: hire, compensate and promote based solely on ability and achievement. The second is how you don’t run an organization: favoritism and bias.

Know when to be transparent and when to be opaque. There are times to share openly and times to zip it. You need to know when and with whom to do one or the other. That comes with experience.

Trust your gut. This phrase is often repeated but rarely understood. It means that your own intuition is an extremely valuable decision-making tool. Too often we look back with regret and say, “Damn, I knew that was a bad idea.”

Protect and defend your intellectual property. If you don’t know the difference between copyrights, trademarks, trade secrets and patents, that’s not acceptable. Your IP is your most important competitive advantage.

Learn to read and write effective agreements. You know the expression “good fences make good neighbors?” It’s the same in business. The more effective your agreements are, the better your business relationships will be.

Run your business like a business. Far too many entrepreneurs run their business like an extension of their personal lives and finances. Bad idea. Very bad idea. Construct the right business entity and keep it separate from your personal life.

Know your finances inside and out. If you don’t know your revenues, expenses, capital requirements, profits (gross and net), debt, cash flow, and effective tax rate – among other things – you’re asking for trouble. Big trouble.

You don’t know what you don’t know. Humility is a powerful trait for leaders, and that goes for new business owners, veteran CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, and everyone in between. The trouble starts the minute you think you have all the answers.

Behind just about every failed company I’ve ever seen, and I’ve seen a lot, was a CEO who didn’t see it coming. Like the proverbial boiling frog, most leaders don’t have the slightest idea they’re in hot water until it’s too late. Don’t be one of them.

For more on what it takes to successfully build, run and grow a business, get Steve’s book, “Real Leaders Don’t Follow: Being Extraordinary in the Age of the Entrepreneur.” Learn more here

Image credit Mike Mozart via Flickr

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